Multiple award-winning composer James Venable has scored films including Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, Jersey Girl and most recently Zack and Miri Make a Porno and American Carol. Additionally, Venable’s work on television shows The Powerpuff Girls and Samurai Jack on Cartoon Network have showcased for his diverse scoring talent. We took a few minutes to catch up with James and hear about how he uses MPCs in his work.
Akai Professional: How did you get started scoring films?
James Venable: I started with an interest in instrumental music in the 80s when I was playing drums in rock bands. I liked doing my own music that wasn’t lyric-driven. Instrumental music has a great life in film and TV so it was a natural transition to make. I started in animation first because my first contact getting into the business was working in the field of animation. I always dug how you can express yourself in animation because quite often you can just go nuts. Unlike traditional film scores, where your objective is often to stay out of the way, in animation you’re over the top in most cases. I was always a fan of Warner Brother’s Carl Stalling stuff. I got to see a live orchestral session where James Newton Howard paid tribute to Carl Stalling’s work with the film Space Jam and that impressed me. I thought to myself, “I’d love to tackle that kind of project”. Powerpuff Girls was my big breakthrough and a chance to do just that. Except in Powerpuff, I would be able to do all the big orchestral music combined with tons of cool beat driven electronica.
Akai Professional: How do you use your MPC?
James Venable: The MPC is where I prefer to create beats from scratch. I use two MPC1000s: one in the studio and one at home. The way I work with the MPC, there are certain things I need out of a computer and certain things I can only get out of an MPC. The MPC gives me everything I need from a workability and workflow perspective, and I combine that with the computer for added flexibility and power. The computer and the MPC are a perfect combo. I use Logic [Pro DAW software] as my sound source, and I love the sequencer and workflow in the MPC so I have it trigger my sounds in Logic.
Akai Professional: What model was your first MPC?
James Venable: Believe it or not, I started off with and got familiar with the Linn Drum 9000, [predecessor to the original MPC60] which exposed me to electronic beats. Producer Andre Cymone of Prince and Jody Watley fame was a neighbor of mine and on rare occasions I got to hang out with him and heard all this amazing music he produced with it. My first MPC was the MPC4000 and I was always keyed into what that box was about through my exposure to Andre’s work, and the Linn drum.
Akai Professional: Which feature do you use most on your MPC?
James Venable: For me, it’s definitely the sequencer. There’s sort of a combined relationship that happens between the pads and the sequencer that causes you to go to different places than you would go sitting in front of a computer and piano keyboard. Through talking to different producers of all kinds of music including hip-hop and R&B, I find agreement with them that the MPC has a certain feel to it that I have yet to find anywhere else. I tried to recreate that feel using a computer and it just never happened. The MPC really leads me to the feel I want. If I’m sitting there working on my eight bars of chorus, it just gets me thinking and nudges my creativity in terms of how that section ties together. Its my groove microscope so to speak. I love the way the MPC works and triggers my creativity. The MPC pads lead you to different places because you’re not sitting in front of a computer keyboard, your muscle memory gets disarmed and it can take you to different places that you wouldn’t normally find without using an MPC.
Akai Professional: What was the biggest or most challenging project you have done using your MPC?
James Venable: A movie I just finished called Zack and Miri make a Porno ended up being a perfect forum for my use of the MPC because it was a non-orchestral groove driven score that tipped a hat to 70s porn music mixed with electronica. I started that score composing away from the picture getting the feeling and emotion of the characters with 4 and 8 bar "vamps". This where I composed my palette of themes and vibes for the score. I would write an eight-bar phrase that made me think of a character or situation in the movie. What I ended up with was a bunch of eight-bar loops, that process helped me select the instruments and feels I would use throughout the score. I’d spend time fleshing those bars out, adding layer after layer then spread that out across 32 bars so that it developed into a full score from smaller pieces. Then I went in and applied these to specific scenes using Logic to arrange and sync my elements to what we spotted in the picture. The thing with scores is that they’re not symmetrical as say, a song so there’s a lot of freedom there.
A lot of people that are doing film scores think if they’re using Performer [sequencing software] as a sequencer on their computer, then they have to be all about Performer and should just stick to that. They are missing out on some of the best reasons to use an MPC. Any film composer will eventually come to the place I’ve come to in my work, especially when working with hip-hop or any other groove music, it is very difficult if not impossible to get this style to sound authentic without the authentic tool...the MPC. The MPC can have a great relationship with their sequencer that composers might not have thought about, it interacts with Logic (or other sequencers) seamlessly, talking to all of the different instruments in the sequencer, while getting all the benefits of the MPC workflow.
People tend to think, “I’m just a computer guy” or “I’m just a hardware guy”. These two points of view do not have to be mutually exclusive of one another. You’ll notice in some photos the MPC is by my side, in others I use it's front and center. I place it wherever it's best for what I’m working on and it’s perfect. Most film composers get asked to do so many things, not just orchestral stuff. We do hybrid scores in today’s films constantly, mixing all kinds groove and beat based stuff with traditional score. Having the MPC there is a cool way to create original great sounding beats and a time-saver for me.
Akai Professional: Do you own any other Akai Pro instruments?
James Venable: Back when the S900 [hardware sampler] was king I used to dig those. I do a little VJing on the side and I can’t wait to get my hands on an MPK49 to use with ArKaos GrandVJ software. I hear it’s a great combo.
Akai Professional: Are there any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
James Venable: Right now my focus has been on music for animation, kind of back to my roots. Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends has a special that is coming out around Thanksgiving and I also just completed a 10th Anniversary Powerpuff Girls special that will be airing on Cartoon Network.
Artist's Akai Pro Gear
Sampling Production Station